Like it or not, as researchers we are in the wordsmithing business. Either we are developing questionnaires to probe into constructs such as advertising awareness or customer satisfaction, or we are analyzing respondent comments for depth and tonality. At the end of the day we take these words and translate them into thoughts that our clients and executives can easily understand. The words used to convey thoughts are as important to a marketing researcher as are the statistics we use to turn raw data into customer insight.
It should serve as no surprise that words can have different meanings depending on the country they are used in, or the audience we are speaking to. Although we are typically not linguists, it is important to take time to craft survey questions that will be understood by the audience we are trying to reach. Avoid this rule and you expose yourself to systematic bias.
If you are conducting a global survey then it is worth the time and effort to create multiple versions of your survey. Many platforms have translation services, but this may not always be sufficient. I have seen errors creep up from translated surveys (English to Spanish and French) because of social context. Phrases in English do not always have the same contextual meaning in other languages. The same can be said for English spoken outside the United States. The example below came from a survey for a well-known auto maker. The use of the phrase ‘advert’ is common outside the United States where such paid media messages are more commonly known as advertisements.
This may be seen as nitpicking, but I have also seen the same problems arise when Baby Boomers create surveys for Generation Y. The takeaway here is: if we are to generate reliable and valid data, then we need to ensure our questions are contextually and socially relevant to the audiences we are trying to elicit opinions from. This may require having input early in the process from native language speakers or from members of the subgroup we want to survey.